SHORT STORY: John Boden

Anyone who has ever asked me for a horror book recommendation can tell you that somewhere in the list is something by John Boden. He is not only one of my favorite people (when we met at a con, he actually KNEW who I was – I will never get over how important that made me feel) but one of my favorite authors. Everything he has written has been… perfect. He writes characters that could be any one of us and puts them in stories that you feel like you’re experiencing along with the people on the pages. I absolutely can’t get enough. So when he reached out and offered to write a story for this year’s Halloween Extravaganza, there was NO WAY I was going to turn him down. He took this a bit further by telling me to select a few tropes he could choose from to create this bit of flash fiction. I was super excited… and also drew the BIGGEST blank EVER haha. What could I say? I asked the people in the Halloween Extravaganza 2022 Facebook group if they had any ideas and got a few things, but the only thing I could think about was how much I absolutely ADORE Carnival Horror and if anyone could write something to satisfy that need, it would be him. So… here we go. Let me know what you think?

The Pretender

The slight young man just stared at the faded and mildew dotted banner that sagged between the wooden poles at the edge of the old carnival grounds. He had walked there slowly and alone, without even paying attention to how much the town had changed in the few years since the last time he had made that trek.

Hometowns don’t change.They age but always manage to open their arms.

Cadamn was just such a town. A mile and a half along either side of the two lane paved road, with two alleys running behind the main street buildings and the back street, some of those having a small splinter off or access road but mostly beyond the houses that lined the alleys were just woods or derelict fields of high grass and weeds. The Friend family had lived in the house that squatted atop the hill as you came into the town’s west end. A large brick troll that stared down on the burg with window eyes and a bricked porch that jutted like a belly to the waiting earth. It had been the a great house for the family until things cracked and broke away.

A family can be just like a precious dish, that first drop can sometimes cause it to shatter, or just leave a single deep crack that will spawn others to join it over time. When dad left to start a new life with a new woman, that was the crack. When Mom stopped talking as much and began to take long walks alone in her head, when meals were forgotten and he had to step up to assure he was fed, that his clothes were clean and in decent repair, that was another. By the time he had managed to limp through school and see graduation within his reach, Jamie Friend had kicked the surname to the curb. He found it vile in the juxtaposition of the behavior of the man who branded tethered them to it and the terms definition.

“Just Jamie” was the answer whenever he was asked his name. Never any more or less. 

Jamie pulled his mind back to the present and focused tired eyes on the banner once more, CARNIVAL in large block letters, dimmed by time and sunlight. Generic. Punctuating the one word declaration was a cartoonish rendering of a man. A bearded man with a large open mouth, black as an eye socket but lined with tiny points under a porcine nose and flat eyes that were painted a bright red, the only real color on the cracked vinyl. Jamie took a step towards the entrance, which was anywhere, not like the hole in the rolled snow fence as when he was a kid. There was no barrier, nothing but the banner strung between the poles. Frayed rope ends batting against the wood in the slight breeze. Jamie took a step and stopped at the implied threshold. The high grass hadn’t even been cut down and there were no paths or bare spots from foot traffic. He felt a flutter in his chest as he scanned the grounds. The bingo pavilion was empty, The wooden tables and benches bowed by time and elements. A canvas for the art of bird shit. No old folks beneath a cloud of cigarette smoke gossiping as they waited for the elusive letter number combination that would land them a new electric skillet or  forty bucks.

The concrete building where the fire company had always sold their fundraising food during that one week in the death wheeze of summer was shuttered and silent. No waft of vinegar and hot grease. No odor of french fries and hamburgers. No one hollering and laughing. Just brittle abandonment and quiet. Jamie looked at the spot near the corner of the building where old man Stuckey used to sit with a bucket at his feet and his harmonica to his mouth and play and sing until the ride were stopped and the lights winked out. He would then lift the bucket of change and crumpled dollars and go to the fireman’s building window and hand it to the folks inside, always saying the same thing.

“If I ever catch fire, this is so you’ll put me out.” He’d chuckle and that one tooth he had would shine in the light. Then he’d walk out of the grounds and across the street to the little trailer he shared with his blind cat, Missa.

He died in that trailer the summer Jamie turned seventeen. By the time anyone missed him and they got into the dwelling, Missa had eaten his eyes.

Jamie walked through the weed-choked grass and looked at the buildings and the barren spots where once trucks of strangers would arrive and assemble metal monsters to care for the children of the town for the evening while the parents laughed and talked and ate and gossiped. Pied pipers with jailhouse tattoos. Magicians with Zippos and body odor. The laughter of the children was a thick ribbon that swirled around the carnival grounds for that one week every year. Until the year Jamie ran away. That year, the ribbon became a noose, the scrawny neck of Cadamn awaiting its embrace.

 Jamie had been in the Ghost Gallery…or whatever they were calling their fun-house attraction that year. He had been the only kid in the ticket line, he side-eyed the small clusters of kids and teens that dotted the perimeter. The old man at the door held out his hand for a ticket and Jamie noted that it was a prosthetic and not one of quality. The hand resembled a mannequin hand with lines drawn in black marker to denote where fingers should be. Jamie laid it in the upturned palm and waited while the man dropped it into his waist apron pocket. With his other arm he pushed open the door and winked at Jamie. “Don’t get scared now.” as he gave a small push with the plastic hand. A sharp edge gouging the flesh of Jamie’s shoulder. There was a bang and then darkness. A thick smell of mildewed cloth and dirt. That earthworms-after-rain fragrance of Autumn. Jamie wrinkled his nose and took a few furtive steps along the floor. His feet squished into something that gave like moist sod thick carpet, just enough to make one apprehensive about their foothold. Something brushed his cheek. A faint blue light flexed through the cracks between the boards of the walls. Pulsing in time with his breathing.

He heard a small noise to his left. Rattling. Laughter. A meaty cough. A voice, not speaking at full volume but sounding as though in another room, like when he would eavesdrop on his parents when they would argue/discuss. Jamie found his lip with his teeth and allowed them purchase, a salty taste as the blood came. He swallowed and listened harder. The voice was his father’s.

The best decision I ever made was to unshackle myself from that lot. That needy woman and that little leech. I was a mammoth mired in tar, I was. Horrid fate for a man. Barbaric.

Jamie took a few more steps and his hand found the doorknob on the wall before him. It thrummed in his sweaty grip and he turned it, pushed until the darkness was stained by the gauzy light from the new room. It was a kitchen. It was their kitchen. Jamie watched as his mother sat at the table and stared at its pocked and filthy surface. The cigarette between her fingers burnt to the filter and leaking acrid smoke into the hazy air. She drops it into the ashtray nearest her hand and has a fresh one in its place in a blink. Jamie sees that the table is full of ashtrays, or more accurately things that became them. Cups and bowls heaped with ash and bent butts. Plates full of dead lighters and skeletal burnt used matches.

There was no sound. As though watching a film, muted. Jamie coughed and his eyes watered.

“Mom?” He stepped forward, the toe of his sneaker bumping one of the table legs and causing ash to sift from one of the piles onto the floor. He followed it with his eyes and saw the linoleum was stained with great dark splatters. When the light flickered, the razor blades hidden in the gloom winked to life and twinkled like stars in the belly of night. The smoking woman stared ahead and her lips began to move. After a few seconds of silence, her voice followed but was out of sync.

Everything I have ever loved leaves, evaporates. Like all this smoke I eat it just is and then isn’t. That man left me with that boy who grew into a shadow. A cumbersome weight around my neck, as I stood on the deck and held my bow and knew…my shame was home to stay. Suckling and biting the nipple free. Swallowing it with the blood of any future I might have had.

Jamie slammed the door as he backed out of the room. Tinny laughter rose in pitch and volume from speakers nested above him somewhere. He felt dampness on his cheeks and knew why. He had always felt like his parents didn’t want him. Had held that close to chest like a medal or a surgery scar. But to hear it spoken aloud.  He tried to go back the way he came. The soft floor was tacky and he felt every step being argued with. He smelled garbage and smoke. Something tapped his back right below his shoulders. He turned and saw shining eyes in the darkness, gone in an instant.

He didn’t see the door before he met it with his nose. Hard enough to cause spots to dance before his eyes. He touched it with trembling fingers and they came away wet and dark. He touched his tongue. Blood. The speakers crackled and a new voice appeared. It was throaty and he smelled his Grandmother’s perfume as soon as he heard it.

He was playing on the steps, sliding down the railing and his father would catch him. It was a game. He got on and slid again too quickly and Paul wasn’t ready and Jamie hit the wall face first. It was an accident. Then the doctor had us hold him down and he cauterized the boy’s nose. They stuffed it with cotton and taped his face. He looked like a goddamn mummy for a few days. But let me tell you, Mary, the silence of those few days was sublime. That kid just never shut up or sat still. I won’t lie, Mary, there was times after where I thought about busting his nose again just for the peace and quiet.

From the speakers leaked the piano theme from The Young And The Restless. Not quite at the right speed. Slow and hobbled. Jamie smelled chicken noodle soup and cats. His eyes grew wet and he sniffed hard, the back of his throat slick with snot. He was only fifteen but he knew what he was hearing. Concrete proof of the suspicions he’d harbored for years. His father left to be free of him. His mother stayed put and left at the same time for the same reason. His Grandmother…all of them. He had felt bombarded by side-eye glances and smirky winces all these years and now he knew why. He had always known but now it was certain.

Jamie pushed the door and it wouldn’t budge. He kicked it and heard laughter from behind him. He turned and the wall of darkness met him. He tried to step forward but the shadows were solid, feeling like a cold stone wall. Jamie turned and tried the door again. The knob turned and the door pushed open with a groan. Jamie nearly tumbled into the room. The flickering light on hundreds of candles creating the warmth of a campfire in the small space. He took a moment to assess his surroundings. The room was barren save for the candles that sat on the floor, lining the walls, some in the necks of bottles, some melted to plates or in ornate candelabras. The far wall had a mirror directly mounted in the center of it. It was a tall mirror. Framed in a carved wood rectangle that was adorned with screaming faces and jeweled eyes that glittered and winked in the light. He stepped closer to it and as he came into direct view of its reflective surface, saw himself. He was the same poor postured skinny boy with the too-long hair and the unclear skin that had walked to the carnival what seemed like hours before. But where that boy’s blue eyes should have been were things that were weary and bled of color, set in bruised baggy wrinkles. Behind him, the carnival grounds were bustling with adults and children. Laughter and bright lights. Technicolor treats in tiny sweaty grips. Jamie turned to leave and the door was no longer. Nor the walls or any evidence of the attraction at all. Jamie stood still in the midst of mad commotion as people walked and ran to rides and games. He was an image super imposed over a scene. He turned to look back to where the fun-house had stood and saw only a rectangle of space  where it had been. Like a doorway cut into the very space itself. He took a step closer and saw himself in it. Behind his was a grinning darkness. Smoke swirled around him like serpents and his cheeks glistened with tears.  The reflection. Jamie held up a hand and offered a feeble wave before lowering his head as if in prayer.

Just Jamie, with a backdrop of carnival frenzy and fun, stared at the mirror from the other side, his stomach dancing.

He started the walk home with a feeling in his gut that he couldn’t quite reconcile. His other half in that funhouse realm of shadow, where secret lies were voiced, where barbed truths stood emboldened. That realm of slings and arrows and wounds that wail. Ghosts that slap and pinch. Jamie was uncertain which he, he was and which world was real. Maybe the worlds just turned and he came out on top for once. A restart, possibly. He looked up the small hill at the house, it was just like it had been the day of the funeral. He had sat in it’s emptiness for a long hour before he finally departed to see his mother’s shell on display.

Jamie mounted the steps to the back door of the house and paused as he looked up at the dim light in his mother’s bedroom window. He listened hard and heard the thin web of music waft through the screen.

He knows that all his hopes and dreams, begin and end there…

Jamie opened the door and was greeted by the stale waft of cigarette smoke and fried food. His mouth slid into a smile as he slipped inside.

Above and around, the night simmered and burned itself to feel.

Boo-graphy: John Boden lives a stones throw away from Three Mile Island with his wonderful wife and sons. A baker by day, he spends his off time writing or wasting time watching terrible horror films from the 70s and 80s. He likes Diet Pepsi, cheeseburgers, heavy metal and old country music, and often sports ferocious sideburns. While his output as a writer is fairly sporadic, it has a bit of a reputation for being unique. The books Dominoes, Spungunion, Walk the Darkness Down, and Jedi Summer are his doing alone. Detritus in Love, Out Behind the Barn, Rattlesnake Kisses, Cattywampus, and the nearly finished Black Salve… on those, he had assistance from Mercedes Yardley, Chad Lutzke, or Robert Ford. He’s easily tracked down on the Facebook or the Twitter and as rumors have it, a pretty friendly feller… honest.

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